PAUL'S FIRST LETTER TO THE THESSALONIANS
THE RAPTURE OF THE SAINTS
1 Thess. 4:13-18
Unfortunately whenever we come to this passage, we come to a passage which has probably been more misunderstood or more misused than almost any other passage in the Bible. Some confidently, if not arrogantly, point to this passage as proof that their view of end times is absolutely, 100 % correct. There are 2 problems with this. First, whereas we can glean some major information about the return of Christ from this passage, it cannot be used to prove certain views on Jesus' return. Second, by focusing strictly on when this event will occur, many have failed to see the main point of this passage. That is such a shame since this passage has some wonderful truths it desires to communicate to us.
Before we look at the passage itself, we want first to see what prompted Paul to write this passage. Apparently Paul is responding to some serious concerns the Thessalonian Christians have regarding the return of Christ. Exactly what those concerns are we don't know because we have only Paul's response and not any information from the Thessalonians themselves.
Whatever else may be true about the Thessalonians and their concerns, we can safely say that they fear that in some way or other some of their recently deceased friends/family members are going to miss out on the return of Christ. They probably believed that whereas the Christians who had recently died were going to heaven, they also feared that the recently deceased were going to miss out on some of the wonderful things Christians who are alive are going to enjoy. This appears to be the first concern.
Secondly, apparently some of the Thessalonians were worried that in some way or other they were not ever going to see any of their beloved ones again, even though they AND their loved ones were going to heaven. Or it may be as some Christians today claim that even though we all go to heaven, we won't recognize each other because we are all going to be made just like Jesus. Paul's teachings will address this concern as well.
PURPOSE OF THE PASSAGE (4:13)
Paul initiates the passage by giving his reason for writing the passage: "For I do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep that you may not grieve as do the rest who have no hope." Paul here is NOT saying that Christians are NOT to grieve whenever one of their loved ones dies. That would be monstrous. Grief is a natural and healthy response to the death of a loved one. If I don't weep over the loss of a loved one, then I probably didn't really care about that person as much as I thought I did. Even more, if I don't grieve at the time of the death of a loved one, I may just find myself grieving over that person a long time later after his or her death. Grieving helps give us closure, helps us say good-bye to a loved one. Rather Paul is saying that we are not to grieve like non-Christians who have no hope for the future of their loved ones.
Despair ran rampant in the ancient world. We have engravings on tombstones and letters from friends to each other detailing the despair they felt upon the death of a loved one:
"Hopes are for the living; the dead are without hope"
(Theocritus, Idyll 4:42 cited by F.F. Bruce).
"I sorrowed and wept over your dear departed one as I wept over Didymas. . . .
but really, there is nothing one can do in the face of such things.
So, please comfort each other"
(letter from one friend to another, second century AD, cited by F.F. Bruce).
Paul says that we are not to fall into the same kind of despair as seen in the examples above.
THE REASON NOT TO GRIEVE LIKE THE NON-CHRISTIAN GENTILES (4:14-15)
It's one thing for Paul to tell us not to grieve like the Gentiles who have no hope; it's quite another thing for him to tell us why we shouldn't grieve like the pagan Gentiles. Here he gives that reason: "For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." Whereas many pagans believed that death was the end of all things, Christians believe that death is primarily a transition into a higher form of life.
The great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which inspired Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, claimed that life is like a bird which flies from the dark night through a window into a room of light and then back again through a window into the dark night. That is NOT the Christian view of death. Rather death is flying from one room of light into another room of fullest light.
That all sounds good; however, what do we base this hope upon? Do we believe this simply because the Bible says so? No, we believe this is the future for ALL Christians because of the resurrection of Jesus Himself. Jesus' resurrection from the dead guarantees OUR resurrection from the dead.
Why does Jesus' resurrection guarantee OUR resurrection? Few of us really appreciate how intricately intertwined we are together as a human race and actually as a universe. We are like a huge pond which will send out ripples if you throw a rock into its center. Well, Adam threw a rock into the center of our pond and sent out the ripples of sin and death. The second Adam, Jesus, has cast a second rock into the center of the pond and has sent out ripples of righteousness and life.
Just how sure is Paul that Christ's resurrection guarantees our resurrection? About 10 years later Paul will write: "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been risen" (1 Cor. 15:13). According to Paul if we will not be raised from the dead, then Christ has not been raised from the dead. Christ became a man, one of us, os that He might link us intricately to Himself. Since Christ has been raised from the dead, then we can be sure that we too will rise from the dead.
Even though dead Christians will rise from the dead, this still does not address ALL the concerns the Thessalonians had. Will their recently departed loved ones be raised much later AFTER the coming of the Lord? Will their loved ones miss out on some of the great events when the Lord returns? No, on the contrary: "For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord SHALL NOT PRECEDE those who have fallen asleep in Christ" (4:15). Far from missing out on anything, dead Christians will actually enjoy the benefits of the Lord's return BEFORE live Christians will!
By what authority can Paul make such a claim? "This we say to you BY THE WORD OF THE LORD!" In other words Paul is appealing to a statement Jesus Himself made while on earth. Since Jesus is God the Son, His statement about this is authoritative and true.
When you look at the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, you don't find any such statement. That doesn't mean though that Jesus didn't make this statement while on earth. It just means that the writers of the gospels didn't include this statement in their writings. In fact John himself claimed that he (along with the other gospel writers) didn't tell all the things Jesus said and did while on earth: the world would not be a big enough library for so many books (John 21:25). Moreover, we have other examples of sayings of Jesus not found in the gospels but found elsewhere (Acts 20:35; John 8:1-11). The wild thing is that even though we don't have that many teachings from Jesus, the few number of His teachings has made such a dramatic impact upon the world. That should not surprise us since He is God the Son.
DETAILS OF THE LAST DAY (4:16-17)
At this point it appears that Paul has addressed all the concerns of the Thessalonians: dead Christians will rise again and will actually rise from the dead BEFORE live Christians are radically transformed upon the return of Christ. He is not finished though. He is going to save the best for last.
Before addressing the final concern of the Thessalonians, Paul launches into a wonderful description of the events which will occur when Jesus returns.
"For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven
with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God,
and the dead in Christ shall rise FIRST.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up WITH THEM in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
And thus we shall always be with the Lord."
First, notice that Paul emphasizes that it is the Lord Jesus Himself, God the Son, who is going to return to gather us to Himself. He is not going to send some angel because He has other pressing engagements on His mind. He Himself is going to come and save us.
Some of us have problems with self-worth and self-value. We think very little of ourselves no matter what we accomplish or what people say about us. Well, this statement should affirm us once and for all. God the Son, Christ Himself values us so much that He doesn't send even the most glorious of angels to bring us to Himself. He Himself comes. If He values us that much, then we are truly valuable indeed.
Next, notice the glorious fanfare which accompanies His return: "with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God." The word translated "shout" actually means "cry of command," normally the cry of a command from a general to his army. Whatever else is true about this return of Christ, this much is true: it is dramatic, it is stupendous.
Some today claim that the rapture will actually be a silent rapture (The Left Behind series). Maybe so, but that claim sure does seem to contradict this passage. From this passage it seems that whatever else is true about the rapture, it ain't silent! In fact Jesus says that His return will be as dramatic as that of lightning flashing across the sky all the way from the east to the west (Matt. 24:27). It will be an entrance worthy of God the Son.
After the trumpet has sounded and the commands have been uttered, the Christian dead will rise FIRST. The position of the word "first" in this sentence shows us that Paul is really emphasizing that the first thing which happens is that dead Christians are resurrected BEFORE anything else happens. They won't miss out on anything on that day; they will actually experience the benefits FIRST.
Only after the Lord has returned and dead Christians have risen from the dead will live Christians be radically transformed. "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up TOGETHER WITH THEM in the clouds for the meeting of the Lord in the air." This addresses the last concern of the Thessalonians. Will we ever see our loved ones after death or even recognize them when we all go to heaven? The Christian answer? YES! Although the primary focus in heaven is going to be on the Father and His Son, this does NOT mean that the focus will ONLY be on these 2. God has created us into being a family. This family of God not only enjoy their Father and their most famous Brother, they enjoy each other as well. Paul is highlighting this when he says that we shall be caught up together with the resurrected formerly dead Christians in the air.
Many Christians have suffered tragic losses of loved ones: husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister, friends, etc. I used to think it strange when you would hear older people say that they had their spiritual luggage ready to go to heaven. The older I get I understand this. My mom once said that she has more loved ones in heaven now than she has on earth: husband, granddaughter, baby daughter, parents, beloved aunts and uncles, cousins, Christian friends, etc. Christ promises us a family reunion on an unprecedented scale upon His return. I will see my sister, my niece, my grandparents, and especially my dad when Christ returns. Heaven will be heaven indeed. It is just now my responsibility to make sure that all my other loved ones will be there for that great reunion.
What gives me confidence that we will recognize each other though when Christ returns and transforms us into His image? What happened to Jesus gives me that confidence. On that first Easter night when Jesus appeared to His disciples for the first time, they recognized Him because of the markings on His body--the scars on His hands, His feet, and His side (John 20:20). The resurrection does not erase our identity. It just completes our identity in Christ.
The final word of encouragement is that at that point we shall always be with the Lord. Wherever He is, we will be also.
As I said at the beginning of the study, this passage has been used to "prove" one view about Jesus' return, the view that states that Jesus will come silently to rapture all the Christians, start the 7 years of tribulation, then return to save all the Jews who have become Christians, inaugurate the millennium, etc. Although this description of the last days MAY be correct, this passage does NOT prove it is correct. A look at this passage does not conclusively prove the rapture occurs before the tribulation. A closer look though may just show us something else.
There is another view which dates back from at the least the time of the disciples of Jesus' apostles which states that the rapture comes AFTER the tribulation and NOT before it. Several items in 1 Thess. 4:13-18 support this plus other passages in the New Testament.
FINAL SIDE ISSUE
Paul has addressed many concerns in this one short passage. He lightly touches upon what immediately happens to Christians who die before Jesus returns. He describes their state as one of "sleep." By this term does Paul mean that we are unconscious between the time of death and the return of Christ? From another passage he wrote, the answer is "No!"
Philippians 1:21-24 describes Paul's attitude towards life and death. When he writes Phil. 1, Paul is worn out and ready to die. Why? Because he knows that he is going to be with Christ. Yet he knows that he must continue to live because of work he has yet to accomplish among the churches. Paul would have never wanted just to die and go to sleep with so much work to be done. Rather, he was wishing he would go ahead and die in spite of all the work he had to do because he knew he was going to go be with Jesus. [In support of this whenever Jesus describes the after-life, He says that at the time of death the righteous immediately wake up in heaven and the damned immediately wake up in hell (Luke 16:22-31).]
If you die and immediately go be with Jesus, then what is all the fuss about the rapture? At the time of death whereas we go to be with Jesus, we do not exist in a bodily state. It is a better state than we are experiencing right now; however, it is not a COMPLETED state. The rapture completes us. We not only are with Jesus forever, our bodies are radically transformed and reunited with our conscious selves. Only at that time are we complete.
So why does Paul use the idea of sleep to describe the interval between the time of death and the rapture if our souls are consciously aware of the presence of Jesus? First, he might have been using it euphemistically, that is, he is trying to use soft words to describe the harsh reality of death. Even today we say things like "He passed away" or "She has gone to be with the Lord." Just saying "He's dead" seems a little harsh and insensitive. Second, Paul though may be describing the state of bodies at the time of death, not the state of our souls, but of our bodies. The word "cemetery" actually comes from the Greek word meaning "to sleep" which Paul uses in the passage (4:13). On that day Christ will awaken and transform our bodies to be like His (Eph. 5:14). It is by no means an accident that until at least modern times cemeteries had the caskets and tombstones facing east, towards Jerusalem. The reason they would face the east is that the bodies would then immediately be facing Jesus when He returns to Jerusalem and raises our bodies from the dead.